Hotel workers union denounces “$500,000 Green Card”

 Nith Lewis, who came to the U.S. in 1981 as a refugee from Lao explained what a good job looks like and jobs created under EB-5 are not.(Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Nith Lewis, who came to the U.S. in 1981 as a refugee from Laos, explained what a good job looks like. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

Hotel employees say a U.S. immigration program for foreign investors isn’t bringing enough high-paying jobs to workers in the region, while being rigged to benefit those who can afford million dollar investments.

UNITE HERE! Local 8, which represents hospitality industry workers in Washington and Oregon, organized a protest against the EB-5 immigrant investor program, sometimes called “$500,000 green card.

The union criticized it as “immigration reform for the 1 percent.”

“While 11 million immigrants in the United States currently have no path to legal status or citizenship, one of the few pieces of immigration legislation that may pass through Congress this year is the reauthorization of EB-5, allowing 10,000 wealthy investors each year to continue jumping to the head of the line,” the union stated in a press release about the event.

The EB-5 program grants green cards to investors who put least $1 million, or $500,000 in a rural area or an area with high unemployment, into a project. Investors may pool their money into a development firm called a regional center for major projects such as hotels and office complexes that create 10 jobs for each investor.

But protesters said Tuesday that hotels built by this program don’t create good jobs with benefits. The union accuses some U.S. real estate developers of using the EB-5 regional center program to secure cheap, subsidized financing without delivering on the promise of large numbers of jobs, or even good jobs, in true areas of high unemployment and economic need.

“This is a real injustice, and it’s an injustice particularly felt by the hundreds of thousands of immigrants working in the hospitality industry, some of whom will now be employed in hotels built through EB-5,” said union spokesperson Abby Lawlor.

According Puget Sound Sage, 56 percent of low-wage hotel workers were born outside of the the US and 71 percent are people of color who work behind-the-scenes under poor conditions.

Union member Nith Lewis said she couldn’t believe it when she heard about the EB-5 program and the hotels that are developed under this program. She works at a unionized hotel, the Westin and she said she hopes that workers in the EB-5-built hotels can have the same benefits as she has.

“I have the pension and I have health care to care of myself and my family”, Lewis said, “I’m gonna retire very soon and I will collect my pension.”

Tuesday’s protest was near the offices of Yareton Investment Funds Regional Center offices in downtown Seattle as part of organized protests throughout the country to oppose the reauthorization of the EB-5 regional center program. Similar demonstrations took place near EB-5 projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Among Yareton’s EB-5 projects are a hotel near the convention center in Tacoma and a Sheraton Four Points hotel in SeaTac.

Yareton is among 44 regional centers in Washington, which have several hotels proposed or under development in the Seattle area. Projects are proposed for downtown Seattle, SeaTac, Tukwila, Des Moines, Tacoma, Point Ruston, Renton and Everett.

Unions have not been the only critics of the program which is run under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Another federal department, the Government Accountability Office, criticized the program last year for a lack of proper oversight, and the program has had allegations of abuse. 

There have also been recent allegations of fraud associated with the program, including a federal lawsuit filed this week against Lobsang Dargey, a local developer accused by federal securities regulators for cheating immigrant investors and spending the money on himself.

Moreover, investors are not always in it to create jobs. According to the New York Times,  “many [investors], successful in their own countries, said they wanted to secure American residency for their children.”

After the press conference, protesters sent delegates to the office of Yareton Investment Funds Regional Center, which is developing two EB-5 hotel projects in Seattle region. The office was empty.

Lawlor said the developer had refused several times before to meet with workers about possible improvements in job conditions.

Emanuel Kurio a recent Seattle University graduate read statements from immigration advocay organizations One America and United Here! denouncing EB-5 and supporting millions of immigrants whose status's remain in limbo.(Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Emanuel Kurio a recent Seattle University graduate read statements from immigration advocacy organizations One America and United Here! denouncing EB-5 and supporting millions of immigrants whose status remain in limbo.(Photo by Goorish Wibneh)